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We take on a Canadian racer at Toronto's only dedicated racing simulator

Winter can be hard on gear heads. It's too cold to hold a wrench and too cold to go racing. How do you satiate a need for speed through a frigid Canadian winter?

It's a niche issue admittedly, but one RaceSim1 hopes to address.

Max Jacques, the owner, apologizes for being a tad frantic when I arrive. The Toronto Raptors want his simulator pods for its team Christmas party. He's trying to make sure they'll work. But this is a good problem for a man who, not that long ago, was shovelling water out of a mouldy basement, wondering if Toronto's only dedicated racing-simulation arcade would ever be ready.

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RaceSim1 is located behind a bar in Toronto's Koreatown neighbourhood. You open a black steel door, and walk downstairs to the basement, into the heart of the race-sim underground. There's one person racing. It's 4 p.m. on a weekday.

"It was a dungeon, my friend," Jacques says. "Oh, it was disgusting. Everything was rotten. I went through multiple floods."

You'd never guess being there now. It's nicer – cleaner, less neon – than any video-game arcade you've ever seen. Lounge chairs sit behind a row of five simulator pods. Each pod has a racing seat, steering wheel, pedals, manual gearshifter and a huge TV screen where a car's windshield would be. It's a virtual go-kart.

Kyle Marcelli, got into his first real go-kart when he was 10 in Goodwood, Ont. He's 26 now and a professional racer, driving an Audi R8 GT3 in the Pirelli World Challenge series and a LeMans Prototype at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. In 2016, he spent 32 weeks travelling to tracks across North America.

And yet: "My heart is racing right now," he says after our first virtual race. "It takes a lot more mental focus than the real thing. Maybe because you're only going on the visual reference points, it's easier to make a mistake."

The green light blinks on. Flick the paddle shifter into first and chaos ensues. The first corner would've been a demolition derby were it not for everyone's ability to avoid my wrecking-ball driving-style. The force-feedback steering wheel shudders as the car goes over a curb. It gets heavier the harder the turn, and suddenly goes light when the car starts to spin.

Marcelli won, of course. Even after crashing his virtual Audi R8 GT3 early on, he stormed passed all of us within four laps of virtual Road America.

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"When you're in the same room and see your competitors without helmets on, it's a whole different ball game," he said. It brings out a competitiveness in people not seen since childhood, since Mario Kart on Nintendo 64.

How close did the virtual experience get to the real thing?

"The track detail and reference points, where you place the car on the track: It's identical," Marcelli says. "There was an access road before turn one. In real life, that's there. Just after that access road is the brake point for turn one and it was the same in the game."

But, he adds, you can't feel the suspension move or the weight of the car or mechanical grip of the tires.

For most, the pros will outweigh those cons. Crashing doesn't hurt. You can't damage anything. You don't have to sweat through 60 C temperatures inside the car, or withstand two or three Gs for hours on end. You can pause any time. It only costs $30 an hour, which wouldn't even buy you an hour of gas for a race car. And it's more social.

"That was kind of the idea behind the business," Jacques says. "We could all play racing games at home. But the idea is to bring people together, to socialize." To get people out of their basements and into someone else's.

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"I have a lot of repeat customers, mostly bigger groups and friends that come to play against each other," he says. There are only a handful of places like this in Canada: a couple in Alberta, a high-tech place in Montreal, a race-sim hardware outlet in Markham, Ont.

Could sim racing ever become an e-sport, a money-making video-game competition? The League of Legends World Championship drew 14.7 million viewers during the 2016 final round, according to Riot Games, the tournament organizer. Will Ferrell is reportedly working on a movie about professional gamers. Prize money for winners is in the tens of millions. "I'm pretty sure that in the future, there's going to be virtual racers," Jacques says.

"They already exist," Marcelli says. "I raced against a few guys who started out on a simulator and they're really good."

Bryan Heitkotter won the Nissan-sponsored PlayStation Gran Turismo Academy in 2011, where virtual racers compete for a seat in a real race car. He was a delivery-van driver at the time. Now he races against Marcelli.

It's a long winter. If you spend enough time in the pods at RaceSim1, maybe you, too, could go pro.

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